‘Alive 2007’ by Daft Punk

The first of three epic recommendations for December: perhaps the most important album in electronic dance music in the 21st Century.  Inspired by a recent conversation with some friends about whether the hype about Daft Punk was justified.  They were both Kanye West fans and so knew the ‘Harder Better Faster Stronger’ sample from his ‘Stronger‘ track.  I was trying to explain why they’ve been my benchmark of cool since the mid 90s, but seeing as we were all drunk and it was the middle of the night I thought I might need to do it a bit more coherently.  So, Messrs Mitchell and Taplin, here we go…

The album is a live album from the 2007 tour, which was developed from a single performance at the Coachella festival in the US.  According to the documentary film Daft Punk Unchained (which the clip above is taken from) the band were asked to play again and again, and kept turning the festival down.  Eventually they accepted, and asked for a huge amount of money for their ‘equipment’.  And then they secretively started work on a new type of show, reminiscent of the Tom Waits song ‘What’s He Building In There?‘  Even their manager didn’t know what they were doing.

I was in a couple of electronic dance acts in my 20s, and one of the things we always used to grapple with is how to make a stage show.  In other words, how not to have a couple of people behind a laptop turning dials.  The bigger the stage gets, the more this becomes a problem.  Then it becomes two tiny people that no one can see, doing things that no one can see, in a vast cavernous space.  Most dance acts would have some kind of a big LED screen behind them, but it would just show a few trippy visuals on loop.  In a club the focus of attention was always on the dancefloor rather than the DJ, and it’s always been a principle in dance music that it’s the music rather than the music-makers that matter: which is why so many hide their faces or deliberately draw attention way from themselves.  But on a big stage like Coachella, everyone is pointing towards the band on stage.  You have to do some kind of stage show; you don’t really have a choice.

So there was so much anticipation built up for this Daft Punk gig, as they barely ever play live.  And there was the sense that this is a band with very high standards.  That said, their previous album wasn’t fantastically well received.  Would they live up to the hype?

Now, the album is a masterclass in building up dancefloor momentum.  Their hits blend in and out of each other, remixed and superimposed and reinvented.  But it was only when I recently saw this Unchained documentary that I actually saw the visuals that go with the music.  And it really brought it home to me how these guys are still the only people who go into this level of detail.

So, how do you solve this problem of filling a big stage.  First of all, they performed inside a giant pyramid.  Which may sound like a gimmick, but it allows them to be really high up, and seen by everyone.  Why a pyramid, and not a sphere, a cube or a gigantic lemon?  Because the shape of it draws your attention up and to them.  And then the rest of the stage that wasn’t filled with the pyramid was filled with two huge meshes of LEDs in the shape of triangles.  So visually there is one coherent shape: the triangle.  And yes, behind them there’s an enormous LED screen.  But…

The visuals are incredibly simple.  In that you see colour, shapes, waves of light that synchronise with the music but (with one exception) you don’t get text or images.  The visuals illustrate the music in the simplest possible way.

Now, bearing in mind that the album is about long, this must get pretty boring pretty quickly, right?

Well, I’m ending this post with a high quality video of the whole set.  Which will probably get taken off Vimeo very soon, as they all do sooner or later.  But I think there’s really no other way to demonstrate how they pull this off, because although there are official versions of their sets they completely fail to capture a sense of what’s going on, because they’re cut in such a random and frenetic way that it’s impossible to really get a sense of how the whole thing builds.

Notice how the visuals start off with just one colour, and are incredibly simplistic.  As the set progresses, they get more and more intricate.  But also, listen to the sounds being played, and look at how the lights match the character of the sound.

And if you don’t want to start at the beginning, I’d suggest leaping straight into…

Current Favourite Track/Part:

The 6 minutes from ’24 minutes in’ to ’30 minutes in’ should be day 1 of any aspiring dance-music-maker’s schooling.  In my opinion, it really doesn’t get any better than this.

(And just by way of balance, to show how hard this stuff is to get right — and this is just my opinion so apologies if you’re a fan but… — if you want to get a sense of what it looks like when someone tries to copy the Daft Punk live show but doesn’t go into anywhere near the same level of detail, try watching deadmau5 live at Glastonbury.)